Will The Legacy We Leave Be The Legacy We Intend?

I've been a dealer in rare coins for close to three decades now. Over that time, I've spoken with thousands of people who have thought, even if only for a moment, they might have something of interest they can leave behind for their family.

I have also met collectors who have spent their entire adult lives accumulating and building collections they leave to their family, even when those family members have no interest in coins at all and don't know what to do with them.

Even though very few of us actively collect coins, I believe we can all learn lessons from collectors - certain lessons from those that do it well, more from those that don't.

Stories are Key

Back in the 90's, Danny De Vito wrote, directed and starred with Billy Crystal in a dark comedy colourfully titled "Throw Momma from the Train". The movie has a poignant scene where De Vito's character Owen asks Crystal's character Larry "You want to see my coin collection?" Larry has zero interest in Owen and less interest in his coins, but Owen proudly explains: "This one is a nickel. This one also is a nickel." Each of the remaining four coins in his collection are as unremarkable as the other. Larry's disinterest may have been exacerbated because Owen had just smacked him upside the head with a frying pan, but that is an aspect of the story I'll leave for another day...

Owen’s Coin Collection
Owen’s Coin Collection
Image Source: MGM Goldwyn Mayer

Larry makes no effort to conceal his disdain for Larry and his self-evident "collection": "The purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something, Owen."

At this, Owen lights up: "Oh, but they are. This one here I got in change when my Dad took me to see Peter, Paul and Mary. And this one I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus." Owen goes on to share the story behind each of the six coins in his modest collection, each a memento of his relationship with his father.

As he observes Owen expound about his humble coins in much the same way a billionaire might introduce celebrated artworks, for the first time Larry can see beyond Owen's unkempt appearance for the human being he is - a man for whom the simplest objects in his pocket are a powerful reminder of the love he has for his family.

This short scene captures the opposite of what I see every day of the working week - cheerless objects of money separated from the powerful narrative that caused someone to keep them so they could feel the same emotion again "one day". 

Click this link to watch the entire scene on Youtube - the whole movie is well worth watching if you haven't seen it yet.

I recall one particular family at my front counter who had a humble collection of foreign coins and notes and had no idea what they were, much less how much they were worth. I reviewed the items and let them know they had minimal value, at which point their eyes glazed over. I then asked: "Do you know where they came from though?"

Middle Eastern Coins circa WII
Middle Eastern Coins circa WII

I explained that one small group of copper and silver coins, as well as a few small paper chits were all issued in France and Belgium during the early 1900's. The second batch of coins and notes were from British Palestine; Egypt and Lebanon across the early 1940's. The final batch were notes and silver coins from the same period, but were from New Guinea; the Straits Settlements; the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. 

I've been doing my job long enough to know these coins would have been collected by returning Allied soldiers. They were convenient souvenirs with a powerful link to a place and time.

"The Greatest Generation" is not known for talking at length about their war experiences, so it didn't surprise me at all when the family didn't know anything of how their family might have come to own them. I asked if any of the earlier generations had served overseas, and the links were slowly made: "Dad served in the Middle East and the Pacific during World War II, Uncle Walter was in France during World War I."

I explained I was clear they would have all been brought home as souvenirs, and that each coin and note would have been change received during a welcome period of R&R. I then suggested they could be kept along with the service medals and a photograph of the men involved, hopefully bringing those dates, places and men closer to the family than they were before.

South East Asian Coins circa WWII
South East Asian Coins circa WWII

I'll occasionally have people ask for an appraisal of an unusual or historic item, once I let them know it has a meaningful commercial value, they ask how they should store it. I let them know that an acid-free environment is vital to preserving the items physically. I then let them know that they could also keep a little note with it, noting necessarily more than a simple anecdote talking about where, when and how it was acquired. Even the tiniest fragment of story is all that's needed to transform the pedestrian into the wonderful. 

The same can be said for any coins, notes or mementoes we might keep - although family vacations in exotic locales far from home can be some of the most fond shared memories in a family, the change from such a journey becomes just more junk unless it's linked in story to the exchanges they were kept from. A pile of coins coupled with smiling photos and a note, now there's a collection.

Plan + Network + Resources + Focus = Success

Determined collectors are quite different creatures to those of us that might toss aside the odd interesting coin we pick up in change. They might also start off just like the rest of us with one coin or note, but they have the capacity to build collections in size and scope that exceed the understanding of anyone else in their family. 

For some, the excitement of holding and owning a prized collectible is a feeling they can replicate as often as opportunity permits. I know of collectors who have gone to incredible lengths to obtain prized items for their collection, and ended up with generational collections. I know of many more who simply bought quantities of anything bright and shiny was offered to them, and ended up with a house full of junk.

John J Pittman Auction Catalogue
The John J Pittman Auction Catalogue (Part 3)

John J Pittman was a well-known collector active in the United States in the mid to late 20th century. Unlike some of history's other storied coin collectors, Pittman was not a king or billionaire, but a chemical engineer with a voracious appetite for knowledge, coupled with a determination for the very best. 

Pittman was so dedicated in fact, he and his wife mortgaged their family home in 1954 so he could participate in the auction of the Farouk Palace Collection in a coup d'etat, held in Egypt. It was possible that the government could be overthrown at the time the auction was being held, so many other collecters and dealers were fearful for their lives and chose not to attend.

Even though he thought he and his wife might be in danger by attending, Pittman simply "took out a lot of insurance" and forged ahead regardless. "I was willing to take the chance, because having known about the overthrow of the French monarchy under Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the sale in London later on of their material I knew this sort of sale doesn't happen but once every hundred or 200 years. You have to take a chance, because if you don't take a chance, you don't benefit."

Pittman epitomised the educated, focused and determined collector. He had an excellent resource library; strong relationships with everyone of importance in the trade right around the world; he had a strategy that left him with a focused list of items he was resolved to acquire. Although he was guarded when speaking publicly about specific coins he owned, his collection was not a mystery to his family.

It is estimated that, in nominal terms, Pittman outlaid several hundred thousand dollars on his collection.  When it was sold via auction, the Pittman Collection brought more than US$30 million. At the time, it was one of the most valuable coin collections ever sold at auction. 

Numismatics was a past-time that enriched Pittman's life in many ways - he enjoyed a stimulating and rewarding activity for many decades; he built an international network of deep friendships and left a legacy for his family that was not just financial, but also by implication was a model for success in life.

If We Fail To Plan We Plan to Fail

Another example that comes to mind when I consider what is left behind in the wake of a dedicated collector's life is the recent visit to our office by a young man who had inherited a collection from his father. I'm not clear on how his father started collecting, but as he was British and the collection included a modest range of copper from the mid century, I expect it was from a modest family inheritance.

At some stage though, the collector involved seems to have fallen in the orbit of a major mail order house dealing in coins and collectibles. The dates on the coins indicated he was active from the 80's right through to the 00's. A wide variety of coins were included - Australian, British and foreign. Silver coins, presentation sets, single notes and folders. There were many multiples of many of some of the items included.

While a collector's vision can be communicated through a curated collection, a vision isn't evident in a large collection of diverse material. There is a good reason for that - in varied accumulation, there is no vision beyond the excitement of accumulating large quantities of a variety of items.

For some, collecting can be an activity bound up in white lies and half-truths. I often have collectors nobly tell me they are collecting for their children, and that their children will inherit their collection once they buy the farm. No matter how it might be carried out, it truly is noble to think that a parent might consistently sacrifice throughout their life with the sole aim their children might benefit in the future.

As noble as that notion is, the reality does not always match the ideal. Numismatics for many is a solitary activity - a way of spending some quiet time away from the challenges and responsibilities of daily life. Such collectors often have a limited network of contacts they can discuss their enthusiasm with, and so enter into little discussion with others about their assumptions. 

However, a collector that lives in an infinity loop surging endlessly between advertising and purchase without a review or an end state in mind, is effectively kicking a can down the road for their heirs to deal with.

I'm clear that the young man I recently met received his father's collection via a formal instruction in his father's will. Such a gesture is clear indication there was at least some intent in the formation of the collection. Perhaps there was a hope it might engender an interest in geography, a particular period of history or simply in commerce. Perhaps it was solely intended to be a financial bequest, it is impossible to know as it wasn't discussed.

The young man concerned lived in a different country from his father, so he didn't have the opportunity to regularly review or discuss the collection with him. He knew his father had a collection of coins and that it was bequeathed to him, but he knew nothing else of it.

In the wake of his father's passing, he didn't have lessons of history imparted to him, he was left with a mammoth task to dispose of the collection. At a time when he was dealing with his grief at the loss of his father, he also needed to support his mother with the sale of the family home and all of the included personal effects.

Rare coins are a specialised field, and while it isn't rocket science, it does take time, knowledge and connections to participate successfully. It is a tall order to take all that on in a short period of time, particularly if the person learning does not share the same aptitude as the person that built the collection. 

While I've seen some people develop new skills and capacities in the course of dealing with a challenge like this, I've seen far more swear off collecting for life as a result. That hardly seems to be the outcome most collectors would hope for when handing off their prized possessions to a loved one! 

The young man in this case said that he had no idea why his father collected what he did, he couldn't understand it at all. I tried explaining the history behind certain items to see if they registered at all, but he provided me with nothing more than a sweet smile of disinterest. He appreciated the funds released from the sale of the collection, but it came at the cost of some distress.

Just a few steps could have eased the burden this young man inherited in the form of a coin collection.

Had his father communicated better about what he was collecting, that might have kindled an interest in the items, or at least an appreciation for his father's interest in them.

Had his father communicated why he was collecting coins rather than painting, playing the guitar or investing in stocks, his son may have enjoyed a deeper relationship with his father. He may have learned something he could incorporate into his own life and could have taken to the task of managing it with less reluctance.

If his father had communicated his thoughts on the options his son had for the disposing of the collection, he might not have been as overwhelmed by the task of managing it when the time came. One of the benefits of discussing a venture with others is we can be asked questions that cause us to refine our own thinking - who knows how this particular collection could have been shaped if the father had his infinity loop interrupted by a few considered and sincere questions from his son.

Even one conversation between them could have ensured the legacy left was the legacy intended.

Share This Post:

Comments (2)

Provenance is always the value in any collectable

By: on 2 June 2024
The story behind an item will pique interest to explore further knowledge, interest and desire to be part of the story. To this end, creating competition to own the item/s.

What A Great & Highly Thoughtful Article!

By: on 1 June 2024
Thank you for such an insightful article. Wonderful points made and much food for thought. I have such a collection of Australian coins and paper notes. A nice batch of round 50c coins included with a large subset of those collected by my dad. While I've mentioned this to my two boys (they show 'moderate' interest) I will now make a point to write a page or two explaining this and a few other things in detail. Thanks again.

Leave a comment

Comments have to be approved before showing up